Copyright in Adaptations

Necessary Series Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. The information presented in this series is based entirely on my experience as a creator and curator.

It seems like every time we turn around, we hear about another book or comic book being adapted into a movie or television show. Is nothing original anymore? (No, and it hasn’t been in a long time.) However, adaptations are one of those situations where copyright comes heavily into play.

Adaptation is when a story exists in one medium, and then is retold in another medium. For example, X-Men originally existed as a comic book. But over the years, those stories have been adapted into at least different cartoon series and an ever-expanding list of movies. To the best of my knowledge, there isn’t a single X-Men cartoon or movie that presents an original X-Men story never before seen in a comic book. X-Men is a poor example, though, because copyright holder Marvel has had a pretty heavy hand in each adaptation. We’d run into a similar problem trying to discuss Harry Potter, where JK Rowling has been involved with the adaptation process as her books became first movies, and then a website.

But then you look at a property like Avatar: The Last Airbender, whose first season was adapted into a movie at the discretion of copyright holder Nickelodeon without really consulting the creators. (I am aware both Konietzko and DiMartino have said Shyamlan occasionally asked them questions, but it was very clear that their vision was set aside for Shyamalan’s.)

In some of these cases, it was the copyright holder engaging their right to remix and create derivative works. In others, the person wanting to create the adaptation had to license the property from the copyright holders. Where it’s a copyrighted creation being adapted, licensing is about the only way a non-copyright holder can play with a favorite property legally.

But what if the material being adapted is available under a Creative Commons license or in the public domain (and I promise, we will get to that)? Then that makes things easier, as we have seen from the countless Shakespeare adaptations we’ve all been subjected to (or genuinely enjoyed)…as long as the conditions are followed for properties licensed under Creative Commons.

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